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Yeshiva U.’s Likely New President Will Keep School on Track — Toward Financial Ruin

If you’re about to apply for college starting in the fall, will your school of choice still be around to confer a diploma in four years’ time? Students considering applying to Yeshiva University for admission next year may want to think long and hard about that question.

Here are a few sample headlines about the school from the past several years that should give you pause: “Yeshiva U. Cedes Control of Half Its Endowment To Shed Its Einstein Liabilities”, “Richard Joel Scores $1.6M Payout Amid Deep Yeshiva Fiscal Crisis”, “Yeshiva U. Loses $84M as Fiscal Woes Snowball,” and “Investigative Report Skewers Yeshiva U. for Past Investment Practices.”

The picture presented here is nothing less than possible institutional collapse. Financially, the school is struggling like few other universities of its size and age in the country. Moody’s continues to rank its bonds as junk and recently determined that the school has a negative outlook. In the past five years, the school has been warned twice (in 2012 and again in 2014) by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education about the possible loss of its accreditation.

What hope is there for a turnaround? With the departure of former university president Richard Joel, the future of the institution rests on his replacement. The name of a serious contender was floated this week, and then the search committee advanced the candidacy of one choice to the board: Rabbi Ari Berman of Israel, formerly rabbi of the powerful Jewish Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Berman possesses the cachet of esteemed Y.U. presidents of yore: he has deep connections to the wealth and power of Orthodox New York City, is a respected scholar and rabbinic leader, and has spent much of his time since moving to Israel leading other institutions of Jewish learning.

On paper, Berman makes sense, because he would ensure that Y.U. continues on its current trajectory. Problem is, if it does so, it faces near-certain collapse.

What experience Berman does possess in terms of leading Jewish learning institutions is of a significantly smaller scale than his possible future role as president of Y.U. And the schools he used to lead were presumably not on the brink of collapse when Berman took over, either.

In a story about the selection process featured on the school’s online newspaper, The Y.U. Commentator, student writers weren’t fooled by the school’s attempts to sell Berman. The paper’s staff writer wrote, “In his email [naming Berman], Chairman Straus charitably referred to him as its CEO. The email emphasized his experience with executive management and finances, two potential areas of weakness for his candidacy. Hechal Shlomo is a relatively small organization compared to a research university, housing an art museum and an auditorium which hosts performances and lectures.”

Those in charge of the selection process know they should be choosing someone with more financial experience, even if they aren’t actually doing so.

The only hope for the school to climb out of the hole it has dug itself into is for its future leadership to have meaningful experience in the worlds of financial management, fundraising and public relations. Historically, the university has been led by scholars, but that’s part of the problem it finds itself in now. When an enormous institution is managed by those who are more comfortable in a library or a Beit Midrash (study hall) than in a boardroom, mistakes will be made, as evidenced by the many mistakes made by those who have led Y.U. in the past.

In a widely circulated open letter published by The Y.U. Commentator in 2012, three staff members, including a Rosh Yeshiva (head of school), came together to plead with the administration to clean up its act before it’s too late. They wrote:

Radical change is needed and Yeshiva University will fail in its mission if such changes are not undertaken rapidly. We think five major changes are needed, but we are uncertain if any of them can actually be implemented in the current situation of denial… We are unsure if this is enough, to be honest, and we actually think that more radical change is probably needed given the reality Y.U. finds itself immersed in. However, we doubt that the radical change genuinely needed can be undertaken, and maybe this will be enough.

What is clear with the possible appointment of Berman is that radical change seems unlikely to be appearing on the horizon. The selection process itself has been more of the same old Y.U. politics to which its alumni have become accustomed. Instead of an open and democratic process like that of synagogues choosing a new rabbi, the selection of Joel’s replacement has been a secretive endeavor undertaken by an unnamed few.

There are no indications that Berman has the experience or even the drive to radically alter how the school functions in order to move it out of the crisis it now finds itself in. While it might be nice in theory to have a president with a PhD in Jewish thought at the helm, the selection of an MBA might have actually guaranteed that the school would be able to matriculate future Jewish thinkers and leaders.

Bethany Mandel writes on politics and culture, usually from a conservative perspective. Follow her on Twitter @BethanyShondark

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